What can you do in a virtual world? Quite a bit, although we’re still quite far from the answer being, “Anything you can do in the real world.” Here’s a baseline list of today’s raw capabilities, in the language of virtual worlds. (The higher level activity one does with these capabilities is another story.)
- Create an indoor room or outdoor space to be shared with others.
- Control who may enter your space.
- Visit the space alone or with others simultaneously.
- Each visitor can move around the space independently, seeing everything that happens in real-time, from their own unique viewpoint.
- Each visitor is represented by an avatar, so that everyone can see who is present and who is doing what.
- Text chat with each other, either pairwise or with everyone in the space as a group.
- Voice chat with the others in the space (typically spatialized, so that sound is attenuated and directional based on the speaker’s relative location to you).
- Stream live Webcam video into the space.
- Import 2D pictures, sounds, and movies into the space.
- Import 3D models into the space.
- Work alone or with others to build your own 3D objects within the space by creating, resizing, orienting, and grouping primitive shapes and applying color and 2D textures to them.
- Select or modify your avatar appearance.
- Connect places within or between spaces, so that visitors can travel easily between them (called teleporting).
- Changes are persisted between sessions, even if no one is in the space.
There are whole groups of 2D worlds that do not support a unique perspective for each user. Some may provide a shared visual perspective from an angle so that things look vaguely three dimensional (as is often the case for Web-based children’s worlds such as Maplestory, WebKinz or ClubPenguin), or they may provide a shared 2D computer-window view (as is the case for commercial sales-presentation software such as Webex or GoToMeeting). While such systems do represent a social virtual world – as does the World Wide Web itself – the additional per-user degree of freedom of 3D virtual worlds provides enough of a social and technical distinction that I find it useful to treat them separately.
Within the universe of 3D virtual worlds, implementations vary in what they emphasize. For example, the supported 3D import formats differ. Second Life provides an elaborate application for altering your avatar appearance. Forums has one-button space creation by selecting from a number of templates. Visual styles and rendering capabilities vary, as do the requirements on the user’s computer. Common services such as persistence, authorization, and presence may be provided by user-supplied hardware or by an operating service.
Other capabilities are not yet commonly provided by all implementations, and give a hint of the scale of what real-world activities cannot yet be done in virtual worlds:
- Second Life has a means of exchanging in-world assets, including a virtual currency for which there are real-world currency exchanges.
- Some systems (including Forums) let you copy 2D or 3D assets in world with permission, and export them out of world.
- Croquet has long demonstrated arbitrary computer applications running in-world, so that they can be simultaneously shared by all participants. Several systems now include at least in-world Web browsers, and Qwaq offers document storage and sophisticated app-sharing as part of its commercial service.
- Qwaq and Sun have demonstrated telephoning between virtual worlds and the Plain Old Telephone System.
- Croquet demonstrates texting between the virtual world and external Jabber IM systems.
- Second Life and Forums have scripting languages that can be used by users to extend the behavior of the system in limited ways as it is running.